Ballina’s koalas were always a relatively healthy population with only a small number of koalas visibly affected by Chlamydia and Koala Retrovirus. Over the last five years, the incidence of disease has risen. Maria Matthes, one of our senior rescuers has managed to rescue most of the affected koalas, however, there remains a number of elusive sick koalas that still need to be found, assessed for health, and rescued, as well as a number of joeys released this year who need to have their health assessed.
These koalas remain elusive due to not being located low enough to capture, or in a trappable tree, due to the terrain surrounding the tree or the amount of surrounding vegetation. The area these koalas inhabit is large and impossible to cover alone.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) offered their support and deployed a tree climber, Kailas Wild, and koala detection dog, Bear, and his handler Russell, from the University of Sunshine Coast, to join forces with Friends of the Koala volunteers. The team spent three days in the field, locating koalas, performing health checks, and rescuing any in need of further care.
“We were concerned about the welfare of these koalas, so being able to access them was our priority,” IFAW Animal Rescue Officer Nicole Rojas-Marin said.
“Bear with his highly developed sense of smell helps us find the koalas quickly, while Kai with his tree climbing skills helps us bring the koalas down safely so our carers and rescuers can catch and assess them, and provide treatment if needed.”
The team, including our IFAW-sponsored vet nurse Marley Christian joined the mission to help assess the koalas. Over the three days, the team found 15 koalas including one joey. Marley and Maria assessed the koalas from a distance and determined that five of these koalas needed further assessment or treatment.
The challenging terrain, vegetation around trees, tree structure, location of koalas in trees, along with the koalas adept avoidance skills, made it difficult, dangerous, or impossible for all these koalas to be captured on this trip.
However, the team did locate and capture one male koala named Kong who was suffering from severe cystitis from chlamydia. He was taken to Friends of the Koala for further treatment.
“The rescue of this one koala is hugely important for the species because each individual if they can be successfully treated is crucial to the conservation of their population. To properly help sick koalas, we need specialised vets and vet nurses – which is why IFAW is so proud to be supporting the vet team at Friends of the Koala,” Ms Rojas-Marin said.
The successful capture of Kong, and other sick koalas, is also important because, they are no longer able to infect the healthy koalas in the area, as well as, reducing suffering by getting the care and treatment required. Unfortunately, despite weeks of treatment, Kong had passed the point where his chlamydia infection could be treated.
Kai, who is a climbing arborist by trade, made national headlines when he drove 1500 kilometres to Kangaroo Island in the middle of the Black Summer bushfires to help koalas that could only be accessed by a tree climber. When he heard there could be koalas in need of care in the Ballina region, he knew his skills could be of use again.
“So much of our wildlife are arboreal, particularly koalas, so it’s essential to be able to access them by climbing trees. It can be the difference between being able to help them and not,” he said.
“It was pretty amazing to be involved in an operation with a detection dog where I can go straight up a tree that Bear indicated has a koala in it. The efficiency that’s gained through that teamwork is huge.”
USC Detection Dogs for Conservation co-founder Dr Romane Cristescu said “in many places where populations are dwindling, koalas need direct actions. This sort of mission is a great example of how we can achieve immediate impact: both for the welfare of each suffering koala, but also for the population as a whole. Each koala treated now is a chance for more joeys in the future, and ultimately, this is how we ensure a population increase,” Dr Cristescu said.
“This is what inspires us to keep going, even in the face of sometimes overwhelming situations, where we feel there are just so many threats, in so many places, that need addressing. But seeing all these groups come together to help a koala population in need, this is when we know there’s hope.”
“The difference working in a team like this is huge and is the least we can do for our koalas.” It was a fantastic team of people, each bringing their own to the party, and working so well together. We all look forward to the next time we can join forces to get the remaining elusive koalas.